Winding my way up Ute Pass on the way to work, I heard Philip Escoffy make the following statement on Episode #69 of The Skeptic Zone; as skeptics, we need to replace what we take away with something else. It’s not in quotes because I am paraphrasing, but you get the gist. Mr. Escoffy was speaking about people who believe in psychics and ghosts, but the same statement could be applied to a wide spectrum of beliefs.
Immediately waves of arguments broke upon the barren shores of my conscious mind. In actuality the waves had been building for a while as I’ve recently been exposed to life-outlooks loosely based on an amalgamation of ideas from The Secret, The Science of the Mind, the Power of Positive Thinking, and other philosophies purporting to imbue the believer with the power to literally shape the universe to their needs.
Examined with a critical eye, all these philosophies are no more and no less than a variation on the prayer idea. Like in prayer, there’s an appeal for an unseen force/entity to bend the progression of reality and the river of time for the benefit of the supplicant.
There are many arguments one could use to counter these notions, but we, the skeptical ones, are often held back by something similar to Escoffy’s argument; we can’t just go in there willy-nilly and tear down a structure that may be critical to the current well-being and peace-of-mind of the believer.
The dilemma for the skeptics is these philosophies lead to very poor decisions. Fine if Oprah wants to live her life that way, but when it’s a family member, friend, or someone a skeptic cares about, the skeptic faces the decision of either trying to help them now or potentially watch them slowly ruin their lives. Of course, things could work out through sheer dumb luck, and then the skeptic has to suffer through countless “See!?! I told you it works!!”
While the latter is the preferable outcome, it’s also the most unlikely.
But if one decides to intervene, all one has to offer is the following: “life is difficult, requires a lot of hard work, and offers no guarantees in return” . . . admittedly, such a message won’t capture anyone’s imagination.
But that’s the reality of life.
No one has the right to live in a fantasy world and expect others to defer to them. Yes; all we skeptics have to offer is the harsh reality of life. But, you know what? I believe everyone would be better off, individually and as a society, if people based their lives, their decisions, and their planning on the acceptance of this harsh reality.
There are no free lunches; you have to work and plan for everything you want. There is no intervening power; you bear the responsibility for the consequences of your decisions. There are no guarantees one can buy or wish for; random chance will favor one, and harm another, and all we can do is strive to better the odds.
The universe is a cold and dark place, and the totality of humanity is but an insignificant speck. Truly understand that, and you understand how absurd it is imagining oneself or others imbued with special powers beyond our capacity to reason, or imbued with abilities beyond our capacity to work as individuals and collaborate as a group, or imbued with understanding beyond what has been painstakingly learned from the examination of the physical world around us.
The sad part is that as a species we have accomplished far more than was ever dreamed by charlatans of years past, have a greater understanding than was ever claimed by countless mystics of centuries past, and have access to wonders far beyond what was dreamed up by past or current seers . . . but the majority is still not content; they listen to promises of eternal life, they are lured by visions of vast rewards for little work, they are seduced by the idea of being something special.
. . . all while standing on the shoulders of those who — painstakingly and through the course of thousands of years — build a foundation of knowledge which facilitated the continuous improvement of the human condition. Improvements which are simultaneously maligned and taken for granted.
So, when I hear “we need to replace what we take away with something else”, I immediately know we’re not likely to succeed because people who believe in something other than reality have already rejected the one thing we could offer them.